Civil rights dept. forum tackles the rising confluence of violence and voting  ⋆

An online forum held this week brought together experts at both the state and national level to examine the connection between voting and violence.

Hosted on Thursday by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR), the “MI Response to Hate” virtual forum was the first in what the department says will be a series of hate and bias awareness programming hosted both online and in-person each month through September.

Topics covered by the forum included trends in hate crimes around the time of general elections, the impact of violence on voting rights, and ways to prevent hate and bias before, during and after elections.

Participants included election officials, civil rights experts and members of federal law enforcement, each discussing various issues in which a rising tide of extremism had impacted the voting process.

Carter Wynne, program manager of the Fighting Hate and Bias Program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, set the tone of the conference by discussing what she described as an “unmistakable pattern” of white supremacy-fueled hate crimes that had emerged since the 2008 presidential campaign, when the candidacy of now-former President Barack Obama saw white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and far right militia movements begin to organize, culminating with a marked increase in hate crimes targeting racial and ethnic minorities in the final weeks of that campaign.

Wynee said that trend then took on new dimensions with the arrival of now-former President Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign.

Carter Wynne – MDCR’s “MI Response to Hate” virtual forum – Jan. 25, 2024

“The Trump presidency empowered white nationalists and provide them with a platform that allowed them to move more mainstream,” said Wynne. “And it’s no surprise that today’s political climate is highly charged, making it so much easier for conspiracy theories and disinformation to spread like wildfire, amplifying hate further.”

Wynne said that spread had been abetted by the failure of social media companies to effectively enforce policies that curb and prevent the spread of online hate and voting disinformation, which has had real world consequences.

“Perpetrators of mass violence have cited these racist conspiracies as a motivating factor for their attacks, from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh to Walmart in El Paso to the supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y..”

Where that spreading of online hate impacts elections, was the focus of Izabella Silva, the clerk engagement organizer with the ACLU of Michigan.

Silva said that with Michigan voters approving voter rights initiatives in 2018 and 2022, the state went from being among those with the most restrictive voting laws in the country, including prohibitions on paid transportation to the polls and no provisions for early voting, to now leading the way in expansion for voting rights across the country. 

“In 2024, Michigan voters will have more options than ever to cast their ballot with options like a minimum of nine days of in-person early voting, signing up to receive absentee ballots in the mail before every election, and the ability to tabulate an absentee ballot at an early voting site or in person on election day,” said Silva, who noted that it would be election officials on the front line of implementing those changes.

ACLU’s Izabella Silva – MDCR’s “MI Response to Hate” virtual forum – Jan. 25, 2024

“In the pursuit of safeguarding democracy, it’s imperative to acknowledge the challenges faced by local municipal clerks and their election officials,” she said. “Unfortunately, a concerning trend has emerged where election officials across the nation are increasingly becoming targets of threats and harassment.”

Silva cited a 2023 study by the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University that showed threats and harassment of local election officials were at a consistently high baseline in any given three month period.

“In 2023, nearly half of election officials who responded to the group survey indicated that they have been insulted,” she said. “A third say they’ve been harassed and nearly one in five have been threatened. In addition, the study has shown that threats and harassment are even more common for racial and ethnic minorities and for women as well.”

Silva said the study’s findings further highlighted the need to address and mitigate the pressure faced by local officials and election administrators as they work to carry out elections.

“Election officials, whose commitment to the democratic process is really commendable, deserve a work environment free from intimidation and fear,” she said. “In the last year, the ACLU of Michigan has taken a proactive grassroots approach to safeguarding our elections by facilitating relationship building between community leaders and election officials and the regular communication and collaboration with clerk’s offices.”

One of those election officials is Oakland County Clerk/Register of Deeds Lisa Brown, who was also a panelist in the forum.

Brown, who serves on the legislative committee for the Michigan Association of County Clerks, was also a Democratic state representative for two terms representing an Oakland County district. She said that great progress had been made with the recent passage of legislation that provided legal protections for election workers and increased criminal penalties for those who threaten or interfere in their work.  

During hearings on those bills, clerks and other elections officials testified about various threats they had faced, including Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson who described voicemail messages left for her “saying that someone can’t wait to see me hanging by a tree.”

However, even with that legislation, Brown said there were still areas of vulnerability, particularly around the issue of recounts.

In December, Oakland County Elections Director Joe Rozell was threatened with being “hanged for treason” during a recount of a ballot proposal in Royal Oak that sought to implement ranked choice voting in the city. 

While that incident remains under investigation, Brown said the law could be clearer on what is and what isn’t required as part of the process, especially when it comes to challenges.

“These people are saying, ‘I want to be able to see the stubs and I want to see the back of the ballot’ and no, that’s not what a challenge is. So, being able to hammer that out so we don’t have to deal with that hostility when we’re doing a recount.”

But Brown noted that voters also have the right to be free from intimidation, whether it be from outside elements or even other election officials.

Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown – MDCR’s “MI Response to Hate” virtual forum – Jan. 25, 2024

“I’ve been in this position for over 11 years,” she said. “So I’ve seen a few different things, including when I went to go vote last year, walked into my precinct and the election worker said, ‘You’ve got to fill out that application and give me your ID, you have to show your ID.’ And I said, ‘Unless I don’t have ID, and I fill out the affidavit on the back of the application’ and he kind of made a face and shrugged his shoulders, like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ Well, if you don’t have an ID, you can still vote, but that might be intimidating to someone who doesn’t have an ID to think, ‘Oh, I have to have an ID. I don’t have one. Now I can’t vote.’ No, you can still vote. You have to just fill out an affidavit on the back of the application.”

Brown also suggested that anyone having difficulty in either registering to vote or casting a ballot should contact their municipal clerk first and seek assistance, and then the State Bureau of Elections if they couldn’t resolve it.

Another issue discussed at the forum was what constitutes a hate crime and how it should be reported.

Kalen Pruss, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, presented information on a Department of Justice initiative called United Against Hate. 

“The goal of this nationwide initiative is to provide community members with the resources to better identify and report potential hate crimes, so that together we can work to prevent them and bring perpetrators to justice,” she said. 

Pruss said what distinguishes hate crimes is their motivation, and that the word hate in this context did not refer to rage, anger, or general dislike, but rather bias against people or groups with specific characteristics that are defined by law.

“Federal law covers certain crimes motivated by hate of someone’s race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, family status, sex, gender, and gender identity, depending on the statute,” she said. “It also covers crimes committed because of someone’s perceived membership in one of those groups. For example, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department prosecuted a number of hate crimes that were committed against Sikh individuals who were targeted because the perpetrators mistakenly believed them to be Muslim.”

Pruss said one issue that often comes up in the enforcement of hate crime laws is the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and where the line is between protected speech, even if its hateful, and speech encouraging people to commit crimes.

Asst. U.S. Attorney Kalen Pruss – MDCR’s “MI Response to Hate” virtual forum – Jan. 25, 2024

“True threats, meaning statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of intent to commit an act of unlawful violence against particular individuals, is outside the bounds of protected speech,” she said. 

Regardless, Pruss said the department still encourages the public to report any concerning incidents to law enforcement as it may alert authorities to an ongoing threat or help with the investigation of a later hate crime. 

“Sometimes prior conduct may serve as evidence that later conduct indeed was motivated by hate or bias,” she said. “So in short, it’s our job to figure out whether the First Amendment applies, not yours.”

The next forum in the series is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 22 and will be held in person in Warren, featuring a roundtable discussion with Politico contributor Zach Stanton and others involved in the case concerning the Bailey family who integrated the city of Warren back in the 1960s

authored by Jon King
First published at

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